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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Imagine a place in this world where criticizing Islamist militancy is blasphemy. Imagine a country where advocating inter-faith understanding is sedition. Imagine a country where talking about establishment of relations with Israel is treason.  People are punished for crime, for creating anarchy and for putting humanity into horrifying terror. But, could we ever believe that someone would be arrested, tortured and imprisoned just for being in favor of global peace, inter-faith dialogue and ending religious hatred? Yes, all this happened during the past five year rule of BNP-Jamaat Coalition in Bangladesh. From various press reports, it is already crystal clear to the entire world as to some politician virtually got into looting business by using their power or political muscle. Many of those culprits are already in prison and more are expected to find the same path. When there is no doubt about the notoriety of dishonesty by BNP-Jamaat government, it is difficult to understand as to how the present interim plus government in Bangladesh continues to bear the burden of a hated case, which had been brought against me for committing ‘crime’ of criticizing rise of Islamist militancy; for publishing investigative articles on the growth of radical forces within the religious educational institutions and for advocating end of religious hatred.

This story began on November 29, 2003 when I was supposed to board a Bangkok bound flight to attend an international conference. Officials at the immigration desk at Zia International Airport in Dhaka told me that they have specific information from sources that I was carrying sensitive information on Bangladesh to abroad. I was surprised, shocked stunned. They searched my luggage and finally discovered some copies of Weekly Blitz, introductory brochure of Blitz Publications, cash US$ 3,000 and my personal belongings. I looked at the eyes of the officials from various intelligence agencies, who were already present there during searching my luggage. They all were seen to be completely frustrated and shaky after not been able to discover any alleged ‘sensitive information’ or ‘sensitive materials’ inside my luggage. At this junction, one of the senior officials of immigration department phoned someone possibly at much higher position and informed him that there was nothing illegal or suspicious with me. He also said, the only problem is I was going to attend a conference in Israel.

The official was asked to wait for some time before there could be a ‘high level decision’ on my issue. Later I came to know that, the former Home Minister Alrtaf Hussain Chowdhury (now in jail on corruption charges) and former Home Secretary Omar Farooq (Member of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh) showed personal interest in influencing everyone within the government in getting me arrested and later bringing sedition charge against me. Why? Because, both Altaf Chowdhury and Omar Farooq are well connected to radical Islamist forces in Bangladesh.

Anyway, I was arrested by the immigration police and handed over to Airport Police Station’s officer-in-charge Muhammed Abdul Hanif. Before taking me from the immigration department, Hanif received all of my possessions including cash US$ 3,000 from the immigration authorities.

Right after I was taken in Airport Police custody, assistant commissioner of police of Dhaka’s north zone came and with all his anger told that I deserved to be charged with sedition to attempting to visit Israel. I told him that, even if it was any offense to visit Israel, it could only come under the minor Passport Violation law. But, how did he judge me to be charged with sedition. He said, “You Zionists deserve to get proper lesson”.

Rest of the story is known to millions of my supporters around the world. I was placed on 7-days police remand. Interrogators applied all forms of harsh methods in questioning me to discover an ‘Israeli Spy’ in me. One of the interrogators broke my leg bone with field hockey stick. They did not hesitate in torturing me with electric shock and other forms of severe torture. But, I repeatedly told my interrogators that the only reason I was traveling to Israel was to attend a Peace Conference in Tel Aviv. They told me, it was not allowed for any Bangladeshi national to visit Israel as the passport of the republic prohibits its citizen from visiting that country. I questioned them, why not? Bangladeshi passport did not allow its citizen from visiting Taiwan even in recent past. But, thousands of Bangladeshis, including several government officials have visited Taiwan, which has finally brought some good news for country’s economy. Now, Dhaka and Taipei are enjoying excellent bilateral relations, despite the fact that Taiwan is yet to be recognized by Bangladesh.

I told the interrogators that Israel is one of the first five nations to recognize Bangladesh right after the independence. Where is the logic for Dhaka to refrain from extending hands of cooperation to Tel Aviv (at that time, Tel Aviv was Israel’s capital). I also told them, Bangladesh established diplomatic relations with Pakistan in 1975, a nation whose forces raped our women and killed millions of innocent people in 1971, just four year before we embraced them with full diplomatic relations. If we could tolerate a rapist and killer nation like Pakistan, why not we have good relations with Israel? Did Israel commit anything wrong to Bangladesh? Did it ever do anything bad to our nation?

Interrogators were not ready to listen to my points, although some of them, later told me that, they too did not understand as to why Bangladesh should not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

On completion of the remand period, I was sent to Dhaka Central Jail inside a cell which is mainly built for mentally insane. Later on after the publication of an editorial in The New York Times, Bangladesh authorities shifted me to another isolated cell with hardened criminals. I was denied all sorts of medical facilities including treatment to deliberating case of glaucoma. Only a 40 watt light was inside the dirty and damp room while there was no ceiling fan or other basic amenities. I had to tolerate tremendous and offensive odor from the toilet pan which had merely been cleaned for reason unknown. Pro-Laden and pro-Saddam prisoners inside the jail attempted to assassin me a number of times wherefrom I narrowly escaped at least twice. Pro-BNP-Jamaat terrorists inside the prison were also extremely allergic on me as because they were not ready to tolerate any secular mind as their jail mate.

During the painful seventeen months in prison, my family did everything in getting bail from the lower court as well as the higher judiciary, but my luck never clicked, as the judges were also not ready to give a sympathetic hearing to my case. They too were mislead by the false propaganda by the former government and its motivated media. I was particularly shocked when the government denied bailing me out on parole to attend the funeral services of my mother, who died of massive heart attack due to tremendous mental constraint.

But, along with the members of my family, one man was never ready to give up his precious efforts in getting me out of the prison. This is Dr. Richard Benkin, my Jewish brother. My brother did almost everything possible on his part in knocking the doors of influential policy makers in the United States as well as other important people in the international media in attaining their support in freeing me. Unfortunately, most of the so-called human rights groups maintained tight lip on my case, while organizations like Pen, Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, Middle East Web and American Jewish Committee did everything in creating voice in my favor. Finally with the generous support and efforts from Congressman Mark Steven Kirk and my Jewish brother Richard Benkin, I was released on bail on April 30, 2005.

It has been more than two years that I was released from the prison. But, despite the fact of passing of a Resolution in the US Congress as well as European Parliament, the government in Bangladesh is yet to drop the false sedition, treason and blasphemy charges against me. Moreover, the former officer-in-charge of Airport Police Station, Muhammed Abdul Hanif simply misappropriated my cash US$ 3,000 and there is no action against this corrupt police officer till date, simply because, he is protected by a very influential official in the services, who is Hanif’s elder brother. My wife and I filed a number of complaints with various offices of the government seeking action against Hanif as well as those who bombed and attacked me and my office on various occasion, but, there is just a broad silence from the government side for reason unknown. My office was bombed in July 2006 by Islamist militant group as well as pro-BNP thugs physically assaulted me in October 2006. But, despite lodging of formal cases on both the occasions, there had been no action from the government.

Many times I questioned myself as to how long I shall have to bear the burden of such notorious allegation. But, up to now, there is no reply to it. Should the present interim plus government in Bangladesh continue the false allegations and charges against me, which had been falsely brought by the former rulers, who are nothing but bunch of corrupts and culprits? Who will reply to my questions?

Posted on 11 Jul 2007 by Root


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